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    KIRO-TV report gets poor grades from media peers

    A controversial investigative story on a Seattle school custodian is examined in a hearing by the Washington News Council. The panel delivered a critical rebuke.
    KIRO-TV investigative reporter Chris Halsne.

    KIRO-TV investigative reporter Chris Halsne. KIRO

    The Washington News Council, a non-profit group devoted to standards and integrity in journalism, held a formal hearing Saturday morning (June 16) at Town Hall Seattle on a complaint brought by the Leschi Elementary School Community and International Union of Operating Engineers Local 609 against KIRO 7 Eyewitness News.  For those on the Hearings Board, including myself, it was a disagreeable experience which, one hopes, may serve the long-term cause of better local TV-news journalism.
    The Hearings Board, composed of present and former News Council board members, was chaired by Karen Seinfeld, former chief judge of the Washington State Court of Appeals, and also included Sandy Schoolfield, the founding WNC board president; Steven Silha, former Christian Science Monitor reporter; Ed Reed, Cleveland High School assistant principal; Steve Boyer, vice president of Hill&Knowlton and a former Northwest daily newspaper editor; David Schaefer, Woodland Park Zoo communications director and former Seattle Times reporter; John Knowlton, a journalism instructor at Green River Community College; Chuck Rehberg, former associate editor of the Spokane Spokesman-Review; WNC President John Hamer; and myself, a former board member.  Hamer recused himself from voting.
    The formal complaint involved a May incident in which KIRO 7 and investigative reporter Chris Halsne prepared and ran a three-part primetime news story alleging that the Leschi Elementary School custodian had manhandled at least one child and had a record of previous misconduct, to which neither the school nor the School District had responded.  KIRO 7 filmed the school, custodian, and students from an unobserved camera. 

    It did not doublecheck the original charge by a KIRO source whose prior disruptive activity had caused her to have a restraining order placed agaiinst her from coming onto Leschi Elementary School grounds. The person making the original charge had first called KING-TV, which refused to give it credence.

    After the stories about the alleged rough treatment appeared, KIRO deleted comments from its website from Leschi community members supporting the custodian.  Protests from Leschi school staff, parents, and others were rudely dismissed. In an email to the school, KIRO News Director Todd Mokhtari said the station "stands by its stories," without further explication  A letter was sent from KIRO's law firm asking for a recitation of laws which KIRO had broken. 

    Footage of the KIRO 7 reports was shown at the hearing, and can be viewed here.  Representatives of the custodian's union, the Operating Engineers, the school, and the parent community made presentations and answered questions.  They drew a picture of the custodian as a beloved and hard working member of the Leschi community, who volunteered beyond working hours to help after-school programs.  (The full hearing was covered by TVW and will be broadcast later this week).
    Invited to respond to the complaint, KIRO 7 chose not to do so.  No one from the station appeared at the hearing, although a table and microphone were set aside for KIRO 7 and equal time alloted to rebut the complainants' statements. (Crosscut has asked KIRO-TV for comments on the controversy, with no reply received as yet.)
    Hearings Board members voted unanimously (with some abstentions) that KIRO 7 was obligated, under generally accepted media-ethics standards, to retract the stories; remove them from its website; air a followup story setting the record straight; and apologize to those whose reputations were damaged, including in particular the custodian and Leschi Elementary School. Details of the votes are in this report from the WNC.
    The Saturday formal hearing was only the sixth in the News Council's 14-year history to have reached that stage. Many other complaints have been lodged against news organizations during that time but, after review by WNC board members, most never get to formal hearing stage or are resolved in discussions between the complainants and news organizations. Another of the formal hearings, held in 2003, involved another complaint against KIRO 7 and reporter Halsne in which the complainants were upheld. Other complaints against KIRO, including one from Secretary of State Sam Reed, did not lead to the hearing stage.
    Personal conclusion:  All members of Saturday's panel, including myself, were thoroughly dismayed by the conduct displayed in the Leschi matter by KIRO 7 and, in particular, Halsne.  Though new media have made inroads, KING, KOMO, and KIRO primetime TV news coverage remains important to area viewers' understanding of events in their communities.  If I were KIRO's general manager, or an executive of CoxMedia Group, the parent company in Atlanta, I'd have the KIRO news director in front of my desk and would probably have long since reassigned Halsne to more appropriate duties — let us say, as a custodian.

    Ted Van Dyk has been involved in, and written about, national policy and politics since 1961. His memoir of public life, Heroes, Hacks and Fools, was published by University of Washington Press. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.

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    Posted Mon, Jun 18, 8:14 p.m. Inappropriate

    Excellent piece by Ted Van Dyk on the results of the WNC's hearing on the multiple complaints against KIRO's stories. Citizens who would like to weigh in are invited to vote online on the same questions that the News Council's Hearings Board and members of the audience voted on last Saturday. Go to our online ballot at http://wanewscouncil.org/leschi-vs-kiro/ Feel free to add comments. We'll keep the vote open through June. This is a way of expanding the concept of media accountability to the general public in addition to the role played by our distinguished and experienced panel. We'll forward the final vote results to KIRO and to the Cox Media Group in Atlanta, which owns the station. They should know what people think of them. Vote!

    Posted Mon, Jun 18, 10:32 p.m. Inappropriate

    KIRO has a history of producing this type of low-life reporting. The station really ought to examine its culture. Heads should roll.


    Posted Mon, Jun 18, 11:40 p.m. Inappropriate

    If we just ignore this happened, maybe it didn't? The water in the pool might be getting thinner (atomization of media and dwindling viewers) but it should still hurt when you dive off the board and land in the deep end with no water. Or does it? I see no wrist slap, no wringing of anything involving Halsne.
    We stand by our man. How noble and yet how stupid. I can hear the supportive comment, "Chris Halsne breaks stories, he usually gets it right." What KIRO has never learned, and the rot goes right through the entire building for at least the last 40 years, is that these things do matter, and that there are consequences for your sloppy story, and for godsake, take some ownership of your mess and the human cost. Own it, story-breaker Knight in Shining Sh*t. And for once, step back from selling cars and scaring soccermoms and consider what impact your work can have. IN A BAD WAY. FOR ONCE.

    Posted Mon, Jun 18, 11:42 p.m. Inappropriate

    Leschi guy needs a good attorney and that's the last trash can he'll ever have to empty..

    Posted Tue, Jun 19, 7:48 a.m. Inappropriate

    Kiro has been heading downhill for quite awhile. We really do need our local news stations to help keep people connected to what's happening in our communities so their ethics matter. There's enough of interest going on without making up unsubstantiated and life destroying stories. If Kiro won't even discuss it then it seems like they are heading toward a lawsuit from the slandered custodian.


    Posted Tue, Jun 19, 9:26 a.m. Inappropriate

    How did KIRO legally broadcast pictures of kids at the school without getting what I thought were REQUIRED releases signed by kids' parents/guardians BEFORE KIRO took video? For kids' pictures to even appear in school publications, videos or on school websites, parents/guardians have to give their written permission FIRST!

    Posted Tue, Jun 19, 9:37 a.m. Inappropriate

    I have doubts about the way this was reported. Ted Van Dyk was on the review committee. I do not think his writing of this piece was appropriate. I support his ability to speak as a private citizen. This should have been published but as an official report by the Board.

    I do not trust the media, refuse to talk with them mostly because they have the ability to do a kangaroo court on TV ie judge and execute in one stroke of the editing key.


    Posted Tue, Jun 19, 10:26 a.m. Inappropriate

    Local 609 has sent the following to members this morning;

    "With the end of the school year there is a natural flurry of events that overtake us all. However, I wanted to stop for a moment and point out what a Profile in Courage our custodian is at Leschi Elementary.

    It has become fashionable in our political culture to speak out against “government” these days. Whether it is in Wisconsin, Indiana or on the national political scene, public service has become a bad word. To hear politicians talk about it, “government” and the work it entails has been portrayed as some sort of sea of faceless bureaucrats sitting at desks moving paper around at huge salaries or wasting taxes going on junkets around the world. Teachers, police, firefighters and all public employees have gone from hero’s to bums in the last few years. Politicians feel they can “score a few points” by voting to cast thousands out of work in order to further the notion.

    The media has played right into the hands of this portrayal (why wouldn’t they as the media, like KIRO, are owned by the wealthy hoping to evade taxes and put their burden on the rest of us) and continues to do so daily.

    However, here in Seattle, we have stood up and we can be very proud yet determined to continue to point out that the real work of government goes on daily in places like Seattle and at schools like Leschi. School goes on, kids attend class and the school runs thanks to the contributions of our members and other public employees.

    As a custodian myself, it has been truly inspiring to watch the community and staff at Leschi (and in the Seattle community as a whole) rally in support of Local 609 member Chester Harris. The quiet class he has demonstrated while those of us around him have undertaken to “right” the wrongs done to him in the last few months really lifts the spirit.

    This morning, the full video of last Saturday’s WNC hearing has been posted by TVW. You can watch it here:


    It will also be on our website (www.iuoelocal609.org) along with a summary re-cap of area coverage.

    On behalf of all of 609, we say; thank you Chet, for setting an example all of us can be proud of and work towards in our daily performance of our jobs.

    Local 609"


    Posted Thu, Jun 21, 8:47 a.m. Inappropriate

    Wow. Talk about taking an issue that all decent people agree on, and using it as a wedge to divide us into factions. Of course, dividing people into factions is what unions do best, I suppose.


    Posted Tue, Jun 19, 10:28 a.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks for your comments. To leitmotif: There was an official finding, to which my piece refers. A link is provided to it.

    I considered, as a panel member, not writing about the hearing or the matter involved. However, the panel was not a jury and the outcome had no formal legal standing. There would have been a problem had I written about the issue before the hearing. But I did not and was not wholly familiar with it until the hearing itself.

    Posted Tue, Jun 19, 10:57 a.m. Inappropriate

    Ted Van Dyk is correct. The WNC's full report on the hearing results, with our panel's final votes on all the questions, is on our website at http://wanewscouncil.org. As for him writing about it, we agreed he would not comment before the hearing. But after it was over, he and other Hearings Board members have every right to say what they think in public. Our WNC members represent themselves, not their organizations.

    Posted Tue, Jun 19, 11:11 a.m. Inappropriate

    @leitmotif: As the Mother present and testifying at the Washington News Council Hearing, your above comment "I have doubts about the way this was reported." does bring a chuckle. You, sir, were not there. You, sir were not directly nor indirectly affected by the horror our Community--most especially kids K-5--has had to process and grieve since the recent senseless murder has crept into our daily world, yet again. YOU explain this stuff to a 5- or 7- or 11- year-old so they can *fully* grok what happened. Tell them (age appropriately of course) why the World is violent,random, scary, racist, homophobic, xenophobic and utterly unfair? THEN try to calm their nerves at dealing with thoughts no child of such age should have to process en mass. Sorry, I will most respectfully "agree to disagree" with you on this matter thus fully supporting Mr. Van Dyke's reportage. Walk a mile in our shoes. I double-dog dare you. Thanks most sincerely ...


    Posted Tue, Jun 19, 11:30 a.m. Inappropriate

    Local 609 has done a great job for their dues-paying members. They came to bat immediately on this hatchet-job.



    Halsne shouldn't even have a job after this fiasco in Oklahoma City.



    Posted Tue, Jun 19, 12:30 p.m. Inappropriate

    The author writes: "If I were KIRO's general manager... I'd have the KIRO news director in front of my desk and would probably have long since reassigned Halsne to more appropriate duties..."

    I'd bet Lloyd Cooney is thinking the same thing.


    Posted Tue, Jun 19, 2:59 p.m. Inappropriate

    "How did KIRO legally broadcast pictures of kids at the school without getting what I thought were REQUIRED releases signed by kids' parents/guardians BEFORE KIRO took video?"

    Good question -- does anyone here have a good answer?


    Posted Tue, Jun 19, 5:24 p.m. Inappropriate

    Please watch the video of the hearing and you'll see a thorough discussion of this question. You can view it online or aired on TVW tomorrow (6/20) at 3 pm or Thursday (6/21) at 3:15 pm. Check tvw.org for days/times of future airings over the next few weeks.

    KIRO never sought nor got permission from anyone, but apparently shot the footage from a concealed camera in an unmarked van parked outside the school. Other footage of custodian Chester Harris in his office was also obtained surreptitiously and without permission. KIRO identified that as his "basement office." However, Leschi Elementary School does not have a basement.

    Watch for further coverage of the hearing by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Eli Sanders in The Stranger, which comes out in print tomorrow. Eli has already posted two excellent online stories on the Slog.

    Posted Thu, Jun 21, 11:53 p.m. Inappropriate

    KIRO certainly deserves censure, but there's an unpleasant amount of schadenfreude displayed by the rest of the media. Like they've never done anything approaching what Halsne and KIRO did.

    TVD, it's unfortunately common for those who've never done a particular job to say that some miscreant should be reduced to doing that supposedly low-level job. Halsne probably would be a worse custodian than he was a reporter, and to assume that he should be "reassigned to more appropriate duties" as a custodian is to denigrate the value of the job of custodian. Especially in this particular case, that's a pretty unworthy and insensitive comment.


    Posted Fri, Jun 22, 11:39 p.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks, Sarah, that was also my first thought when I read this. The writer aimed for clever but missed the mark and instead landed on insulting.


    Posted Sat, Jun 23, 7:49 a.m. Inappropriate

    @dbreneman - Your 8:47 comment makes as much sense and is as relevant to the discussion as a Tourette's outburst.

    Posted Mon, Jun 25, 8:39 a.m. Inappropriate

    Just checked in to see the comments re my closing suggestion that Halsne might be reassinged to janitor duties. I can see how this might have been misunderstood and, on reconsideration, probably would have omitted or changed it.

    I certainly intended no disrespect for janitorial duties. My father was an unskilled laborer most of his life and spent much time doing such duties. I meant to imply that Halsne, in those duties, might have a different view of them and of those performing them. Stated it badly.

    Posted Fri, Jun 29, 4:53 p.m. Inappropriate


    Posted Fri, Jun 29, 5:29 p.m. Inappropriate


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